A/N: I'm so, so sorry about the wait for this, and thank you to all of you who stuck with the story, followed it, favorited it, and sent me messages of support even though I'm sure it looked hopeless that I would continue. They were very much appreciated, and I'm sorry that it took this long to get this chapter out. I can't guarantee a time for the next chapter because I just got a new job that requires a ton of travel and I'll be lucky to have electricity and running water, much less internet, where I'll be staying, but it won't be 10 months again, I can definitely promise that. Thank you again and I hope you enjoy.
Carol's head shot up at the sound, glancing worriedly over the sea of cars that separated their small group from the camp. Her eyes met Lori's, and she knew the terror in Lori's eyes was reflected in her own.
"That was a gunshot," Lori breathed, barely more than a whisper. Carol nodded a shaky agreement, squinting her eyes against the afternoon light as if that would somehow help her see further, see what was going on back at camp.
"At least it was just one," she started to say, but was interrupted by the crack of another gunshot echoing off the hills surrounding them. She felt her heart pounding in her chest as she drew the small handgun she'd been assigned out of her purse.
"Oh god, the kids," Lori gasped, palming her own gun. Carol grabbed her free hand, clutching it. She couldn't help but notice it was cold, and sweaty. Carol felt the gun in her grip slip in her own sweaty palms. Carl, Jimmy, Beth, Daryl, her mind screamed, fear rising like a living thing in her throat. Madeline, she thought, almost as an afterthought, and felt bad that she didn't even feel guilty about the fact that thoughts of the girl had come last.
"Wait," Carol said, pulling Lori back. "We can't help any of them if we go running in there like the cavalry. We need to be quiet about it. Find Rick and Andrea if we can. See what's going on before we run in guns blazing." She deliberately didn't mention that, despite their training, she doubted she could hit a walker in the head more often than one in ten times.
Lori nodded, taking a deep breath to steady herself, though her eyes darted in the direction of camp as a third gunshot, and then a fourth, sounded. "We can't wait long. If we don't find them on the way we go in without them."
"Okay," Carol agreed, feeling her heart pound as she gripped the alien-like gun in one hand. "The others will have likely heard the shots too. They'll be heading back."
They moved silently through the tangle of cars, eyes alert for movement. Carol's heart beat faster at the lack of further gun shots while they moved. She tried to tell herself it was a good thing, that it meant the attack must have been limited, but she couldn't convince herself. Couldn't erase the image of Daryl and the kids torn apart by the mindless dead. Lord, Daryl was still hurt and Jimmy little more than a kid. Why had they left them alone at camp to guard the kids? Why had they thought they were safe when nowhere was safe now?
The crack of a weapon firing to her left made Carol jump, and she looked over to see Andrea loading a new bullet into the chamber of her handgun. T-Dog was beside her, grimly clutching a rifle as he scanned the sea of cars. A walker slumped over the hood of a nearby SUV, dark, dead blood pooling around a gaping wound in its skull.
"The kids," Lori reminded them, grasping Carol's hand and pulling her along. The sound of T-Dog's rifle going off behind them made Carol jump, but she didn't turn around. She didn't want to see. Instead, she let Lori lead her blindly into danger, and it was only when she remembered Daryl and the kids, sitting there helpless with only Jimmy and Beth as protection, that she could gather the courage to keep following.
The sight that greeted them was one Carol hoped to never see again. A pile of walkers were laid out in front of door to the RV, which hung loosely open on its hinges, swinging in the slight afternoon breeze. Even more walkers were converged at the doorway, clawing over each other in their attempts to get inside, climbing mindlessly over the piles of dead that already lay in front of them.
"Carl!" Lori shouted, dropping Carol's hand and raising her gun. It jerked in her hands and one of the walkers clawing its way over the dead bodies already lying at the doorway of the RV joined the pile. Another one just took its place, only to fall dead from a shot coming from inside the RV. Carol raised her own gun in a shaking grip and remembered to squeeze, not pull, the trigger. The recoil startled her as much as it had the first time she'd shot the thing, and she missed. Another shot from inside the RV dropped the next walker.
A few of the walkers at the rear of the group trying to make their way into the RV turned their attention to Lori and Carol. Carol tried to readjust her grip on the barrel in sweat soaked hands, and nearly dropped her gun. Movement to her left had her swinging the gun up and around, and she almost squeezed the trigger before recognizing Andrea lining up her shot beside her. T-Dog cursed quietly from somewhere behind her, and Carol heard the loud bang of his rifle though the sound was muffled, as though he were shooting away from them.
T-Dog cursed again. "We gotta get to the cars and get out of here. This noise is just drawing more of them." He fired again, and Carol risked a glance behind her, only to have her heart sink at the sight of several more walkers stumbling through the mess of cars behind them.
There was a lull in the firing from inside the RV, and Lori surged forward as she called Carl's name. Carol dropped her gun, grabbing Lori by the arm and pulling her back, holding the other woman close like Lori had done for Carol once long ago, under those cars on the road as Sophia whimpered in fear. "There's nothing you can do," Carol told her as calmly as she could, with walkers bearing down on them and Lori shaking with silent tears and her own gut clenched with fear for Daryl. "Best thing for your boy is to take out those walkers at the RV and get him out of here."
"Carol's right," Andrea said, her voice and hands steady as she took shot after shot. Each one took out a walker. She paused to reload, as calmly as if this were practice, and Carol envied Andrea her poise, her control. "We take these out, we can get to the RV, get out of here. It's not safe here anymore."
Lori nodded shakily, raising her gun again and taking aim. Another walker fell. There was a shot from inside the RV, and a walker fell half-way though the door. Carol let out a sigh of relief that at least someone was still alive in there.
"We can do this," Carol said, as much to reassure herself as Lori. It must have helped on some level, because when she raised her gun again, her hands no longer shook. She thought of the kids, of Beth and Jimmy, of Daryl, and the fact that someone inside the trailer was still fighting. This time, when her fingers squeezed the trigger, they held steady. The walker closest to them collapsed, the top of his head blown away.
Any pretense Carol had held of keeping quiet fled at that point. There was no going back - it was obvious that this would turn into a bloodbath. The only thing they could hope for was the chance to get to the RV and flee before they were overrun. And suddenly, Carol felt a sense of calm come over her. They might all die here, yes, but it didn't matter anymore. What was done was done. Her shots came surer after that, her hands steadier, as she raised the gun, accounted for the recoil, aimed, and squeezed. To protect the kids. To protect these people that she hadn't even known before the world had gone to hell, but realized all of a sudden she would die to protect.
And then, it was over. Carol found herself holding her pistol in front of her, ready, sights aimed at nothing but dead bodies. Her breathing was harsh and ragged, and she could feel the way her shoulder braced against Lori's, both of them turned slightly to the side to cover different areas as they fought their way to the RV. Even T-Dog and Andrea were quiet, though she could hear the both of them breathing loudly, could even imagine that she could hear their hearts beating in synch with hers as they waited for the next wave. But everything was still, unmoving, and the quick glance Carol dared to take behind her showed that the walkers coming up behind them were just as dead as those whom they had faced.
"Carl!" Lori shouted again, breaking the post-battle trance they all seemed to be caught in, and Carol let her go this time. She followed, fear pounding in her chest for Daryl, for the other kids they'd left behind at the camp. The door to the RV was sagging on one hinge, the other torn away by the herd in their attempts to get into the camper. The dead were piled in front of the doorway, spilling into it, blocking it. Lori paused to tug on the passenger side door, but it was locked. Carol swung around to check the driver's door, only to find the same. She could see through the window enough to see Carl standing by the table, gun still drawn. At least he looked unhurt. Her fear kicked up a notch when she noticed Daryl slumped on the floor, propped up against the kitchenette chair beside Carl. He didn't appear to be moving.
"Everyone okay?" a voice called, and Carol startled since she hadn't even heard Rick approach. He led Hershel, Maggie, and Patricia out of the woods, all of them with guns drawn. Carol couldn't help but notice the way Patricia's hands shook with the gun in them, and felt a brief pang of... something. Regret, maybe, or even pity. She had held a gun like that once, long before when Ed had forced her to shoot a spruce grouse. You need to know what it feels like to kill something, he'd told her. It'll make you strong. If only he'd known.
"We're fine," Andrea answered, startling Carol from her thoughts. "We need to move," Andrea continued. "No telling what all that noise will bring here."
"Carl's in there, and Daryl," Lori interrupted, her eyes wide. "I don't know who else." She raised her voice, loud enough that Carol would have flinched were the situation not so desperate. "Carl, honey, are you okay?"
Rick took in the sight of the dead piled at the door and his own breath quickened. "We need to get those moved," he said needlessly. "Hershel, Glenn, T-Dog, start moving them. Maggie, you and Andrea need to get as many supplies as you can packed up into the cars. We need to move soon." Carol saw them nod, taking in the desperation of their situation. They dispersed quickly, each to their own assigned task.
Carol ran around to the passenger's door, keeping a close eye on where Rick had already begun organizing people to move the dead out of the doorway. Lori was already talking to Carl, trying to peer around the sagging door and the fallen bodies.
"I'm fine, mom," Carl was saying in that tone Carol had heard teenagers take when they'd been asked the same thing too many times. With a pang Carol remembered that she'd never be able to hear that tone from Sophia, had never heard it from Sophia before either. Thoughts for later, she reminded herself. Not now. Focus on the living, on what you have left.
"No one was bit, but Daryl's bleeding bad. He tore up his leg again." Carol could hear a mumbled protest from Daryl in response to Carl's tattling, but it was slurred and too weak to make out, and that worried her even more.
"Beth! What about Beth?" Maggie was there suddenly, throwing a body off the pile as she unintentionally pushed Carol aside, trying to make her way into the trailer to see for herself what had happened to her sister. Glenn held her back when she showed every intention of crawling over the dead to get inside, grabbing her around the waist and making soothing noises into her hair.
"I don't know," Carl admitted, his voice losing its confidence. He sounded like the little boy he actually was again. "She and Jimmy, they went… um, away." He sounded sheepish and mortified at the same time, too young to be able to talk about what Jimmy and Beth had gone off to do, but old enough to realize he'd likely just gotten them in trouble. It was such a normal, childish reaction that Carol almost giggled. She only just managed to stop herself, and realized maybe she wasn't handling this whole situation as well as she thought.
"You know where they went?" Hershel demanded, his voice grim as he pulled another body from the doorway. Carol recognized the tightness in his eyes, the small tremor in his hands. Worry for a missing child. Her heart ached for him. There was no pain like not knowing.
Carl shook his head mutely, head down as he stared at the gun he held in his hands. He didn't play with it, though Carol could see his hands twitch on occasion as though he longed to twirl it around to hide his discomfort, but he didn't. He'd been well trained, Carol thought, and grown up too fast. And what was this world now that guns and violence were something a child could handle, but sex and love weren't?
Her thoughts were interrupted yet again as Rick pulled the last of the bodies blocking the doorway. Suddenly, the stair was free and Carol registered Lori sweeping past her and stepping around the few bodies still littering the ground at the base of the trailer door as she swept Carl into her arms. Carl just hugged her back, and his "I'm fine, mom, I'm fine," was tinged with only a touch of teenage exasperation. Carol noticed that his hand, where he still clutched the gun, was white around the knuckles.
Carol followed more sedately, using the bar at the edge of the door to lever herself up and over the remaining bodies. Her heart was in her throat as she approached Daryl, lying prone on the floor of the camper. A trail of red from the door to the couch attested to the injury he'd done himself, as did the growing pool of red beneath his leg.
Daryl stirred weakly as Carol knelt next to him, feeling silly as her hands fluttered around him but couldn't choose a place to settle. He raised his head and looked at her with bleary eyes before his gaze shifted to the group working to clean up camp beyond what was left of the trailer door. "Took y'all long 'nough," he said, voice hoarse.
Carol wanted to gather him up in her arms and hold him, the relief that he was safe was almost a physical weight lifted from her. But she thought about the last time she'd tried to give him comfort, and held back.
Lori showed no such restraint. "Thank you," she breathed, swooping down and drawing him to her in a close hug, ignoring the way he flinched and tried to withdraw. "Thank you for keeping Carl safe."
Daryl tensed, then wiggled away from her, laying his head back against the cushions of the couch behind him with an exhausted sigh. "Told him to hide," he said, eyes closed. "Wouldn't do it. Boy's a good shot. Should keep that gun. Kept me safe as much as I did him."
"What about Madeline?" Lori asked, looking around.
Daryl tilted his head towards the bunks at the back of the trailer. "Hiding."
Carl nodded. "We told her to hide when we realized the RV was surrounded," he explained. "I should go get her, let her know we're safe. We told her not to come out until one of us came for her." He switched the safety on his gun to on before tucking it into his pants and heading towards the back of the trailer. Lori squeezed Daryl's shoulder before standing and following her son.
That left Carol and Daryl alone as Rick coordinated cleaning up the camp. She reached out to him slowly, her heart fluttering as she took in the pale cast to his skin, even as it was soaked in sweat. His skin was damp as she clutched his shoulder, shaking him slightly to get him to look at her. She felt bad for that, lord knew she did, especially when he jumped at her touch. It was nearly imperceptible, but she felt it in the tensing of his shoulder underneath her hand.
"Sorry," Carol apologized, keeping her voice low. "You were drifting. But we need to get your leg taken care of. You hurt anywhere else?"
Are you bit? her eyes asked, but she couldn't say it aloud.
Daryl blinked wearily at her before shaking his head. "Tore it again trying to get to the kids," he explained, voice rough. "And kicking one of those motherfuckers in the face. Ain't bit."
Carol didn't bother to hide her sigh of relief, and didn't worry about the way Daryl tensed as she kissed him on the cheek. "Thank god," she breathed, and didn't miss the way Daryl's lips quirked.
"Or Carl," he said. "Like I said before, boy's good with a gun. It's thanks to him we're all safe."
Carol chose discretion as the better part of valor and decided not to question what his definition of safe might be. Instead, she busied herself with his leg. Blood had seeped through his bandages to pool on the floor, and the flap of his jeans stuck to the vinyl when she pulled his leg into her lap to get a better look. She ignored the noise he made at the movement; Daryl was not one to take sympathy well.
She unwrapped the injury as gently as she could, grimacing when she saw what was underneath. Just as Daryl said, the cut had opened up again and while it was no longer bleeding freely, the area around the cut was an angry red, inflamed and aggravated by his movement. Several of the stitches had come loose as well, and the wound gaped open once again, oozing blood sluggishly.
Carol left Daryl's side long enough to stumble to the bathroom and pull out a pad from underneath the bathroom sink. Andrea and Maggie would probably be mad at her for it later, but she couldn't think of a better way to stop what was left of the bleeding. And Daryl didn't need to lose any more blood, Carol thought to herself. Not on top of everything else he'd been through over the last week.
The others were a flurry of action around her as she knelt beside Daryl, pressing the unwrapped pad hard against the wound in his leg. Carol barely registered the people stepping around her with armfuls of supplies from their makeshift camp hastily thrown into whatever would carry them, so she jumped when Hershel lay a hand on her shoulder and knelt down beside her.
"We need to stop the bleeding," she offered, unprompted, and Hershel only nodded grimly before reaching out to jostle Daryl's shoulder. Carol had been so intent on his leg she hadn't realized his eyes had slipped closed. Daryl blinked hazily at the man.
"We'll have you patched up again real soon, son," Hershel said. "But first, I need to know. Did you see which way Jimmy and Beth went?"
Daryl struggled upright, peering around Carol and out the door of the RV as if he could see the missing teens. "Were gone when I woke up," he admitted, voice rough. "Was just Carl and Madeline outside the camper when I heard the walkers."
Carol couldn't resist the urge to give him a quick hug, though she hated the way he tensed at her touch, and tried to pull away as she drew him to her. "You did good," she whispered, shooting a furtive glance at Hershel. "You kept Carl and Madeline safe."
"It'd be best if you let me work on him," Hershel said, abruptly. "I'm sure they could use your help outside packing up camp."
Carol nodded, giving Daryl's hand a quick squeeze as she rose to her feet. She wanted to say something to Hershel about how she knew what it felt like to be waiting on word for a missing child. How she wished that he never had to go through what she did, wondering whether that child was dead or alive. But she knew her platitudes would mean nothing, that the others' platitudes had been nothing more than empty words to her, so she just left, barely glancing at the bodies of the dead that had been piled beside the trailer as Rick and the others moved them out of the way of the trailer door.
Instead, she headed for Rick, who seemed to have moved on to directing the packing of their impromptu camp. "What still needs doing?" she asked.
Rick snorted, waving an arm out at the camp in general. "Everything," he answered flippantly. "Worry about packing up our food first. Get as much as you can into the RV."
Carol was heading towards the pile of goods that still remained around their campfire when a gunshot echoed from the edge of the woods, and she turned, dropping the set of dishes she carried as she unconsciously raised her gun. Jimmy ran out of the trees, pulling Beth along behind him. Carol's first emotion was relief, a heartfelt thanks that they were alive, that Hershel wouldn't have to go through what she had been forced to go through wondering about what had happened to her Sophia. The relief was quickly replaced by horror as Jimmy paused at the edge of the road, turning and firing blindly back into the woods. A fresh wave of walkers spilled out of the trees after them, and Carol gasped. T-Dog cursed beside her and started firing. Andrea didn't even bother with the cursing.
Rick was shouting orders, throwing the last of the dead bodies blocking the entrance of the RV to the ground. "Go, go!" he yelled, though he was barely audible over the cacophony of gunfire. "Fall back, into the RV! Move it!"
Pale faced, Lori rushed in, clutching Carl to her and drawing them both down into the front-facing kitchenette seat. Carol could see Lori through the open door, hugging Carl to her as she stared in horror at what was coming out of the woods. Hershel kept on working doggedly on Daryl's leg, and Patricia knelt beside him as she jumped through the open door.
Glenn fired a few quick shots before hopping into the RV and diving into the driver's seat. Maggie was hot on his tail, barely bothering to sit down in the passenger seat before she rolled down the window and started taking out more walkers. Carol found herself pushed in by T-Dog, who stopped firing long enough to give her a gentle shove towards the door. She pulled herself in, ignoring the steps, and found herself kneeling behind the driver's seat next to Daryl. She worriedly touched his face, alarmed at how cool and clammy he felt. She was even more alarmed by the fact that he didn't protest, just gazed blearily at the commotion going on around them.
Beth and Jimmy practically hurled themselves through the door, Jimmy knocking Daryl's outstretched leg, the bleeding leg, in their haste to scramble back out of the way. Daryl's face paled even further and he cursed, a thin, pain-filled sound that made Carol want to both smack Jimmy for his carelessness and hold Daryl to give him some comfort. But she did neither, because she knew it was an accident on Jimmy's part and that Daryl would never let her. Instead, she re-cocked her gun and watched the door.
Andrea and T-Dog followed closely on Jimmy and Beth's heels, quickly moving to the couch to get out of the way. Rick threw himself in after, yelling "Go, go, go!" as he braced himself against the kitchen sink, still firing out the door at the approaching walkers. He tried to close the door as Glenn fired the engine, but the door wobbled unsteadily on its broken hinges. It would be poor protection at best.
Glenn slammed the vehicle into reverse, then spun into a tight turn that had the still-extended stairs throwing off sparks where they scraped against the pavement. The door flopped open, and Carol had a glimpse of the hoard of walkers emerging from the trees and converging on their make-shift camp before it slammed shut again when Glenn straightened the RV. They sped off, the door flapping open and shut as Glenn drove the RV faster than he should be down the rough highway.
Daryl groaned next to her, curling over his ribs as the ancient shocks of the RV did little to cushion the ride. The gun slipped out of his limp fingers and slid towards the flapping door. It would have slipped out if Rick hadn't stopped it by stepping on it. This time Carol did give into temptation, reaching over and pulling Daryl to her. He didn't resist, falling against her side with another low moan, though she could feel the tenseness in him as he struggled against the pain of the ride.
"Once I get this bleeding slowed, we should get him off the ground," Hershel said, looking up concernedly at Daryl as he held a makeshift bandage in place over the reopened cut. Carol ran a hand through Daryl's hair, alarmed at the cool dampness she felt there. She nodded a shaky agreement, feeling Daryl tremble underneath her hands as he fought to stay quiet. Carol didn't blame him; she couldn't imagine how much it must hurt to be bounced around in what was little more than an aluminum tin around them.
Andrea made a grab for the door, holding it shut with one hand while she tied it in place with some twine and a screwdriver jammed through the broken hinge as a temporary fix. They'd need to make something more permanent when they felt safe enough to stop. Or at least when they had put more distance between themselves and their road-side camp. Not that it would help, Carol thought dismally. They're only safety was in running, and they couldn't run forever.
She looked around and saw her same fear reflected in the faces of the group. They'd all lost too many, too quickly and it was all they could do to hold on to those they loved, and those they'd come to love. Lori sat beside the window, her face pale and eyes wide, Carl and Madeline clutched to her side. Glenn gripped the wheel with white knuckles, shooting furtive glances in the RV's rear view mirror as he drove. Maggie perched on the edge of the passenger seat, her eyes sharp and watchful, shotgun across her lap. One hand clutched Glenn's knee as if to reassure herself that he was there. White faced and pale, Beth and Jimmy sat leaning against each other on the couch. Patricia had one hand braced against a cupboard for balance and laid the other on Hershel's shoulder as he worked on Daryl's leg. Even T-Dog had crouched down across from Carol on Daryl's other side, helping Carol cushion his ribs from the crumbling highway the RV's ancient shocks did nothing to smooth.
Only Andrea and Rick stood alone. The door secured, Andrea had taken up watch out the side window from the couch, her gun braced against the back of the couch and pointed out the window. Rick stood back in the narrow space between the bathroom and the closet, watching them all but not looking at a single one of them. Carol tried to meet his gaze, but the look in his eyes gave her a chill and she quickly glanced away. Something isn't right here, she thought, turning back to Daryl. But then again, could anything ever be right in this crazy new world? Carol could only wish she had more faith that one day it could.